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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 14, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Turtles, Magnolias, Mistborn, and Poblano's

As I looked at the koi pond in our back yard I thought: What this pond needs is turtles.

We've had frogs come by now and then, but I think they get discouraged about laying eggs in our pond because our fish tend to eat them.

Turtles, though -- they're native to North Carolina. Surely if squirrels can survive in our yard, turtles can.

So I started looking into getting a turtle or two, and quickly discovered that it's not legal to sell turtles in North Carolina. Because our beaches are protected breeding grounds for sea turtles, and we don't want people stealing them and interfering with their life cycle, the state has simply outlaws the buying and selling of turtles.

My first thought was a sort of libertarian outrage: Why not just ban the buying and selling of the kinds of turtles that they're trying to protect?

Then my wife reminded me that the little toy-size turtles that people buy as pathetic pets for their kids are carriers of disease, so it's a health issue, too.

But, defiantly, I thought: It's not illegal to own turtles, so I can always go to Virginia and buy one or two.

Then I bought a book about turtles and it took me about half an hour to realize that having a law against buying turtles is like having a law against buying heart attacks. Who'd want one anyway?

The book was for turtle lovers, mind you. They were full of warnings like: This turtle is a biter. Careless handling can lead to the loss of a finger.

Then there were the climate rules. These creatures are fussy. Practically all of them need to be taken inside in the winter, unless we have a safe place for them to semi-hibernate during the winter.

Since I can't get a bird feeder that squirrels can't get into (and believe me, I've bought every "squirrel-proof" kind they make), how can I make an outdoor turtle den that is raccoon-proof? After all, coons are smarter and stronger than squirrels, and a sleepy turtle is a better prize than a few bird seeds.

I have visions of a raccoon knocking on our door and asking to borrow a screwdriver so it can take the hasp off our turtle-box door.

The clincher, though, was the information that not only are some of these turtles really bad swimmers, most of them need a very gentle ramp to get in and out of the water.

We don't have a gentle ramp. We have river stones. And it was hard to picture a turtle of any size being able to get a flipper over the rounded edge of one of those stones and then chin himself up onto the rock.

And if we put in a ramp, that would be the same as putting in a fishing pier for raccoons.

Turtles need a lot more care and special handling than I'm willing to give them.

So I have declared the squirrels in our yard to be free-range pet squirrels. They are now officially part of our decor. All I have to do to keep them around is put out birdseed in the winter and spring.

Thank you, North Carolina, for preventing me from buying a turtle for my yard.

*

I've given it my best shot for sixteen years, but it's time for me just to admit it: I hate magnolia trees.

I know. It just proves that I'm not a southerner. Which is not hard to prove, anyway, since I grew up out in the deserts of the west. (California is a desert, until you add irrigation water and illegal immigrant gardeners.)

I moved east of the Mississippi on purpose, because this is the part of the country that God finished creating. He added the water. It's one of the things I love about Greensboro. If you don't pave it, but mow it, it's a lawn. If you don't mow or pave it, in three years it's a forest.

I have better, healthier plants growing in the cracks between bricks on my patio here in Greensboro than I had growing in my yard in Utah.

I knew that magnolias were a signature tree of the South. I even tried to be excited about it when the realtor pointed out to us (sixteen years ago) that the house we were contemplating buying already had two healthy magnolia trees.

Now I know that this is almost as welcome news as if the realtor had told us that the house already had two cats, which constantly shed fur and loved to scratch the furniture.

For magnolias shed worse than cats. And not delicate little brown pine needles. These are big sloppy brown leaves, thick as cardboard and about the size of a brochure. On top of that, they drop ugly cones that are big enough you can sprain your ankle if you step on one in the dark.

This might be tolerable if I liked the way the trees look. But I think the flowers are medium ugly and the leaves are a dark, waxy tropical green. They don't belong in the ever-changing deciduous woods of Greensboro.

The Japanese maple in our yard looks more like it belongs than the magnolia.

Now, this is purely a matter of taste. If you love magnolias, good for you. If it breaks your heart to see a magnolia die, just give me the word and you can have mine. But you'd better act fast, because at least one of my trees is coming down this week.

You see, we're putting in a new driveway (because our old concrete driveway has pretty much turned into cracks and gravel), and in the process we're widening a part of it to hold our garbage cans (behind a wall), so I don't have to slop through our muddy lawn when I have to take the cans to the street in the rain.

And the new pad will go right where we have a glorious crepe myrtle tree.

Crepe myrtle is the opposite of magnolia. It's deciduous, and the leaves are attractive coming and going. And the blossoms are a profusion of purple or pink several times a year.

On top of that, crepe myrtles have such smooth and varicolored bark that even in winter they're beautiful.

So I looked back and forth between the magnolia tree and the doomed crepe myrtle and I thought, Why am I going to sacrifice the tree I love, while the tree I hate is going to stay there pooping all over my yard?

The decision was easy. The magnolia is going to get turned into sawdust and sludge. The crepe myrtle is going to be picked up with giant jaws and moved into the hole the magnolia left.

And I'm going to be a happy man.

*

One of the finest writers of fantasy literature these days is a young man named Brandon Sanderson. His first novel, Elantris, was an astonishing debut. But he has proven himself to be an innovative, intense writer time and time again.

So much so that when Robert Jordan died with his huge Wheel of Time series not yet completed, it was Brandon Sanderson who was asked to complete the last volumes of the work.

Along the way, Sanderson has also written a series of young adult novels about a kid named Alcatraz Smedry, who has to fight off the conspiracy of the Evil Librarians. It turns out that these were already favorites of some young readers that I know.

But the Sanderson work that has moved into the must-read category for fantasy readers, anyway, is his Mistborn Trilogy.

The titles can be misleading. The one called The Final Empire is the first book in the trilogy, not the last. The middle book has the meaningless title The Well of Ascension (let's see ... wells go down, so how exactly would you ascend one?). And the third book has the semi-awful title The Hero of Ages, which sounds like the subtitle to everybody else's fantasy trilogy.

OK, so Sanderson isn't the world's best titler. Trust me on this: The books are so good that after you read them, you'll even like the titles. Truly. Because he earns them.

Sanderson doesn't do Tolkien-clone fantasy. Yes, the setting is semi-medieval, but this isn't a landscape we've seen before.

For the past thousand years, the world has been ruled by an Emperor who, if not evil, is nasty, arbitrary, and all-powerful.

Not only that, but he has failed to protect the people from a weird mist that comes out at night and makes it dangerous to move through city and country.

But the mist has a strange side-effect. Some people are "mistborn" -- they have the ability to "burn" various metals to gain temporary magical abilities.

The story follows a group of characters who live in the seamy criminal society of the capital city, using their very limited powers to eke out a living. Until a leader comes to them and unifies them, teaching those with real talent how to use their powers to greater effect.

It turns out that their leader has a plan, and its ultimate goal is the overthrow of the immortal emperor. It can be done, he's sure of it.

Usually in a fantasy trilogy, that would be all the goal you needed. Book one sets up the hero and the quest; book two sags as they go through various complications but accomplish nothing except to make things worse; and then in book three they finally fight the emperor and, presumably, overthrow him.

Not when Brandon Sanderson is the author. What the characters think is their goal is never quite what they imagined it to be, and victory -- which comes far earlier than readers expect -- leads to something way worse. Who knew that the "evil emperor" was just what he claimed to be -- the savior of the planet? The real enemy is far worse, and the price of dealing with him far higher, than anyone supposed.

There is no "middle volume sag" -- there are so many twists and turns that you truly never know what is going to happen next. And yet when it does happen, it feel logical and right and, insofar as it is possible with a magical fantasy, believable.

Along the way, the magic is so marvelously well-realized that it is simply fun to read. Even the fight scenes -- which I find utterly boring in most martial-arts novels -- are exhilarating, if only because we've never seen heroes with such powers before. Not that the powers are greater than we've seen in, say, superhero comics. On the contrary, they're far more limited. It's just that the skill the characters must exercise makes the whole thing quite gripping to read about and picture in your mind.

Sanderson isn't just a fight-scene writer, however. In the tradition of the best of the recent fantasy writers, he creates fascinating characters that we care about; kingdoms with complicated-yet-plausible politics; and a history that, as we uncover it bit by bit, resonates with our sense of the mythic and true.

And he's a quick writer. That is, the books never feel ponderous. They zip forward through the story -- though they are still complete. You never feel as if anything important has been skipped.

In short: These books are, together, a masterpiece.

And since the trilogy is complete and available in paperback, you don't have to break the bank to buy them all.

*

For mystery fans, let me just point out that two new volumes in ongoing series have come out and are worth your time.

Robert B. Parker has a new Jesse Stone novel, Night and Day. Stone is Parker's failed-LA-cop-turned-smalltown-sheriff character, and I think he may be my favorite, now that Spenser is getting a little long in the tooth.

The novel begins with a call to the local junior high, where a teacher has done something quite inappropriate with a group of teenage girls. Yet her behavior is so bizarre and the politics of the town are so convoluted and inbred that Stone finds himself facing serious legal trouble just for doing his job.

Meanwhile, though, there's a killer on the loose (would it be a mystery if there weren't?) who is practically begging Stone to catch him.

And because it's a Parker novel, there is much discussion of and reliance on psychiatry -- but less than in the usual Spenser novel, and it's cleverly handled so that the story doesn't seem to require the reader to believe that talk therapy actually works.

If you prefer your mysteries with a slightly lighter touch, then you'll be happy to know that Hamish Macbeth is back in M.C. Beaton's new novel Death of a Witch.

Macbeth is a Scottish cop in a small village. He likes his life there and resists every effort to promote him -- which would require him to move to the big city. Instead, he stays in the town where everyone knows him and he knows everybody.

Of course, that means his love life -- such as it is -- is on constant public display, complete with commentaries from the neighbors. But it's worth it to him because he is at peace. Well, mostly.

Because a woman has moved into town who is dispensing supposed aphrodisiacs to the village men -- but not at all with the effect that they expected. Inevitably, the newcomer turns up dead (may I suggest that moving to the village of Lochdubh, Scotland, is even more hazardous to your health than hanging out with Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote), and Macbeth's investigation takes him to some unexpected places.

Beaton manages to write her Macbeth novels with humor -- but never falls into the repetitive trap that eventually turned me off from Joan Hess's Maggody series and Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, where the same jokes were repeated, without variation, from book to book, as if the writer were afraid to have a new idea.

Not that Beaton doesn't repeat jokes -- she just doesn't write as if she thought we thought they were brand new. And things do change from book to book. Mostly, though, she concentrates on the mystery at hand, never letting the longer-term story take over so completely that you feel like you're caught up in a soap opera instead of a mystery.

Both Night and Day and Death of a Witch are fairly slim books (they use large type and thick paper in Parker's novels to make them seem longer). If you can't finish each of them in a single day at the beach or in the mountains, you're just not relaxing enough during your vacation.

*

So Poblano's Mexican restaurant bought out the location where we had the habit of eating at Wholly Guacamole. We managed to curb our resentment long enough to try out the new chain (new to Greensboro, anyway), though we went to the one in Friendly Center instead of the one out Battleground Ave.

While I miss the titular Wholly Guacamole, Poblano's version is certainly good enough. And we've found their menu to have more variety -- and quality at least as good. Maybe better.

Shredded beef and black beans if you want them. A cheese dip that sent the cheese-dip lovers in my family into ecstasy. Great shredded-beef taquitos, excellent enchiladas, and a very good pork tamale.

So Poblano's is a good replacement for Wholly Guacamole.

Meanwhile, Chipotle Grill remains the best Mexican fast food anywhere (with the possible exception of Poquito Mas, but that chain is only in southern California).

And between Poblano's and Chipotle Grill, I can finally get everything I used to enjoy eating at the much-missed Baja Fresh. Just not at the same meal.

Though I suppose we could get takeout from Chipotle Grill and take it to Poblano's to eat along with their food. But I think they might get a little testy about that, so I guess I won't try it.


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